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Obama’s ed budget a tough sell on Capitol Hill

While it provides a small boost for education, Obama's budget may have a tough time meeting approval.
President Barack Obama’s budget request for increased education spending is likely to face a tough fight against Republicans — and even if ends up being approved, the extra money wouldn’t stave off another round of layoffs and classroom cuts expected this year as federal aid dries up and states struggle to recover from the recession..

The 4.35 percent increase that Obama proposed on Feb. 14 would go toward expanding the highlights of his education agenda: A third round of Race to the Top, the competition that awarded $4.35 billion to 11 states and the District of Columbia last year for pursuing ambitious education reforms; a 10 percent increase in grants to turn around the nation’s lowest performing school; and $4.3 billion for teacher and principal development.

Additional education spending would maintain an increase in the maximum Pell grant awards to $5,500 by cutting $100 billion through reductions in graduate and professional student loan subsidies, as well as the eliminating the “year-round Pell” that allowed students to collect two grants in a calendar year.

House Education and Labor Committee chairman John Kline, a Republican from Minnesota, derided the proposal, saying increases in education spending over the last 45 years have not yielded improvements in student achievement, and that the Democratic-led Congress overreached in expanding the Pell Grant program.

“Throwing more money at our nation’s broken education system ignores reality and does a disservice to students and taxpayers,” Kline said in a statement. “It is time we asked why increasing the federal government’s role in education has failed to improve student achievement.”

Meanwhile, appropriations from the 2011 fiscal year have still not been approved, and a Republican bill would cut $4.9 billion in education from the 2010 budget.

All of that makes increasing education spending a difficult sell.

“It’s going to be really hard to work out a compromise,” said Joel Packer, executive director of the Committee for Education Funding, a nonprofit organization that advocates for increased federal education spending.

“We’re worried we’re going to end up with a government shutdown.”
Packer and others said districts are facing a triple blow to their education budgets: The end of stimulus money from the Recovery Act, which provided an unprecedented $100 billion for education; ongoing budget cuts at the state and local level; and, depending on Congress, potential federal cuts.

Federal money represents about 10.5 percent of most education budgets, but the huge influx of stimulus and emergency teacher jobs funding over the last two years helped soften cuts to the classroom. Now as that money dries up, districts are expected to slash from already bare-bone budgets.

Some examples of cuts state legislators are weighing:

  • In Colorado, Gov. John Hickenlooper has proposed cutting $375 million from education spending on public schools, or about $500 per student. Legislative economists have said the state could face a shortfall of at least $1 billion due to loss of federal money, higher demand for services like Medicaid and inflation.
  • In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s budget request proposes a historic 7.3 percent cut to school aid. Advocates say it will lead to thousands of teacher layoffs and larger class sizes.
  • In Iowa, legislators are considering cutting the state’s preschool program spending from $70 million annually to $43 million. The program currently provides early education in 90 percent of the state’s school districts. The state is facing a budget shortfall of up to $700 million for the upcoming fiscal year.

Analysts say a modest increase in education spending at the federal level would be dwarfed by state cuts.

“It doesn’t match the magnitude of what’s really happening on the ground out there,” said Michael Petrilli, vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, an education think tank, said of the president’s budget request. “That we’re seeing the biggest decreases in education spending since the Great Depression.”

Education Secretary Arne Duncan acknowledged it would be a difficult year.

“There’s no question these are some of the toughest budget times we’ve seen in decades,” Duncan said. “We’ve called this the new normal. What we’re asking them to do as much as possible is see a very tough time as an opportunity.”

The proposed budget includes $900 million for a Race to the Top competition for districts and rural communities. Education officials credit the first two rounds of the competition with a wave of education reforms throughout the nation, including adopting common academic standards, changing teacher evaluations so that instructors are held accountable for student achievement, and allowing for more charter schools.

Duncan said the new Race to the Top would allow these efforts to continue at the district level. Republicans have already said they would oppose another round of the competition.

Also included in the budget is $350 million for a similar competitive grant program aimed at early education.

Jacqueline Jones, senior adviser for early learning at the Department of Education, said the nation lacks a coordinated system of early care and education, instead relying on a number of different funding sources that she said results in significant variations in quality.

The competition would reward those who have taken a lead in reforming early education.

Other programs the Obama administration has introduced, including Promise Neighborhoods, which would provide family and cradle to career support services for distressed schools and communities, would be continued.

“What they’re trying to do is spur innovation, replicate success,” Charles Barone, director of federal policy for the Democrats for Education Reform. “That’s where federal government is able to make the most impact.”

Obama’s budget would also set aside $80 million to prepare 100,000 new math and science teachers over the next decade.

Petrilli questioned the focus on these teachers now.

“It just feels kind of random right now, at a time when all kinds of teachers are being laid off,” he said

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